WHEN Australian driver Mark Webber recently announced his intention to retire from Formula 1 at the end of this year, another chapter was closed in the history of this country’s connection with grand prix racing that also includes the tiny town of Leyburn.


Touring the world and driving million-dollar machines at incredible speeds, Webber may never have heard of Leyburn, but perhaps in some distant way he owes it a nod for being part of his heritage.


The Formula 1 World Championship started in 1951 and has become one of the world’s richest and most popular sports.


Melbourne’s annual Australian Grand Prix is part of that extravaganza, but the event wasn’t always so glamorous. Long before the Australian Grand Prix became part of the Formula 1 circus, the 1949 event was held near Leyburn.


On 18 September 1949, there were no aerobatic fly-pasts, grid girls, live television or corporate hospitality suits. Just acres of brown grass. And dust. And a field of cars that ranged from sophisticated European thoroughbreds to backyard specials built with war-surplus parts.


The circuit seemed as far away from the concept of a grand prix as it’s possible to imagine – a makeshift layout on an ex-wartime airfield in the middle of the countryside and a long way from traditional racing centres.


Yet 30,000 people were reported to have come from far and wide to see the spectacle. Even today, that would be a healthy crowd.


After a few years’ use, the track, the competitors and the spectators moved on to other, more permanent tracks. But the memory of that magnificent day did not fade.


The event is now commemorated with the annual Leyburn Sprints, which will run for the 18th time on 17-18 August. Organised by members of the local community, it brings an estimated 7000 visitors and a significant economic boost to the region.


Although the round-the-houses time trials for 200 classic and historic cars bears little direct resemblance to the 1949 grand prix, it evokes many memories and a special ambience.


Motor racing historian Ray Bell continues the story –


"At the time Leyburn, like every small country town in Australia, was rebuilding following the Second World War and the opportunity to host the grand prix provided a real highlight for the township," Race Director Mike Collins said.


"An air of excitement and anticipation filtered through the community in the lead-up, but not even the most supportive of locals could have imagined the flood of spectators that made the journey to witness the 14th Grand Prix.


“That occasion still stands as the most populated time in Leyburn's history.”


John Crouch, in a sleek looking French Delahaye collected the chequered flag to etch his name in Queensland's motoring history. With the 150 pound winner’s cheque handed over and the spectators heading home, Leyburn once again laboured away to its traditional rural tune.


But it came roaring back to life in 1996, when Mike Collins founded the annual Sprints and began a new motor racing chapter for Leyburn, the little town that can trace its racing heritage from 1949 to the modern grand prix circuits of the world.


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